Jaime Harrison, first vice chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, is expected to make history today as the first African-American to head a major political party here.
But Harrison says he’d rather be known for something else.
“The thing I want to be known for is rebuilding the South Carolina Democratic Party and winning in 2014,” he said week. “I’d rather have that title than ‘the first African-American chair.’ Both would be an honor. I’ll be glad we checked that box and moved forward.”
The 37-year-old Orangeburg native, Yale graduate and Washington lobbyist faces no opposition in his bid to be the Democrats’ new chairman, a two-year unpaid post that involves recruiting candidates, raising money and firing up volunteers.
He would take over from Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia lawyer who isn’t seeking a new term and has been known for his zingers and combative style. “You probably won’t get as interesting quotes,” Harrison said, “but I hope to be pretty substantive.”
On the Republican side, incumbent state GOP chairman Chad Connelly is expected to win another two-year term today.
Connelly said he is proud of the Republicans’ progress, such as increasing their majorities in the Statehouse and winning the state’s newly created 7th Congressional District — especially last year, when the GOP didn’t fare well nationwide.
Connelly said his biggest challenge was the ethics filing confusion that knocked more than 200 candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, off last year’s ballot. “I think most people see that as what it is — a total anomaly that cannot be reproduced in this space-time dimension,” he said.
As for Harrison, Connelly said he doesn’t know much about him. “As far as a worthy adversary, maybe he won’t have the foul mouth that Harpootlian has had,” Connelly said. “It will be interesting.”
The son of a single, teenage mother, Harrison was raised by her and his grandparents, who had little education but saw that he got a good one. He first got involved in politics 21 years ago, working with state lawmakers from Orangeburg. He progressed to work for U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn as a floor director.
“I always call Clyburn my political dad in so many ways,” he said. “I’ve learned so much from him. We’re the same when it comes to recognizing what is at the core of being a Democrat is making sure we provide opportunity to everybody to be the best person he or she can be.”
Harrison said he will focus on rebuilding the party’s infrastructure in all 46 counties, highlighting ethical lapses among Republicans, and shaking up the status quo. “We have to do some things differently,” he said. “Just saying, ‘we’ve always done that,’ well, we’ve always done that — and we’ve been losing.”
Harrison works for the Podesta Group, a lobbying firm, and said his clients mostly are in the transportation sector, such as Boeing and the State Ports Authority. He spends about four or five days a month in Washington.
Asked if that job could cramp his style or draw criticism either from within or outside the party, he likened it to working for a large law firm with different clients who have different political interests. He said he doesn’t expect it to be a big issue.
“In transportation policy, it doesn’t get very partisan,” he said. “I’ve talked to folks in my firm and my clients. They have Democrats and Republicans on their boards, Democrats and Republicans who work for them.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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